With the end of the Revolution, the United States again had to face
the old unsolved Western question -- the problem of expansion, with
its complications of land, fur trade, Indians, settlement and local
government. Lured by the richest land yet found in the country, pioneers
poured over the Appalachian Mountains and beyond. By 1775 the far-flung
outposts scattered along the waterways had tens of thousands of settlers.
Separated by mountain ranges and hundreds of kilometers from the centers
of political authority in the East, the inhabitants established their
own governments. Settlers from all the tidewater states pressed on into
the fertile river valleys, hardwood forests and rolling prairies of
the interior. By 1790 the population of the trans-Appalachian region
numbered well over 120,000.
Before the war, several colonies had laid extensive and often overlapping
claims to land beyond the Appalachians. To those without such claims
this rich territorial prize seemed unfairly apportioned. Maryland, speaking
for the latter group, introduced a resolution that the western lands
be considered common property to be parceled by the Congress into free
governments. This idea was not received enthusiastically. Nonetheless,
in 1780 New York led the way by ceding its claims to the United States.
In 1784 Virginia, which held the grandest claims, relinquished all land
north of the Ohio River. Other states ceded their claims, and it became
apparent that Congress would come into possession of all the lands north
of the Ohio River and west of the Allegheny Mountains. This common possession
of millions of hectares was the most tangible evidence yet of nationality
and unity, and gave a certain substance to the idea of national sovereignty.
At the same time, these vast territories were a problem that required
The Articles of Confederation offered an answer. Under the Articles,
a system of limited self-government (set forth in the Northwest Ordinance
of 1787) provided for the organization of the Northwest Territory, initially
as a single district, ruled by a governor and judges appointed by the
Congress. When this territory had 5,000 free male inhabitants of voting
age, it was to be entitled to a legislature of two chambers, itself
electing the lower house. In addition, it could at that time send a
non-voting delegate to Congress.
No more than five nor fewer than three states were to be formed out
of this territory, and whenever any one of them had 60,000 free inhabitants,
it was to be admitted to the Union "on an equal footing with the original
states in all respects." The Ordinance guaranteed civil rights and liberties,
encouraged education and guaranteed that "there shall be neither slavery
nor involuntary servitude in the said territory."
The new policy repudiated the time-honored concept that colonies existed
for the benefit of the mother country and were politically subordinate
and socially inferior. That doctrine was replaced by the principle that
colonies are but the extension of the nation and are entitled, not as
a privilege but as a right, to all the benefits of equality. These enlightened
provisions of the Northwest Ordinance formed the basis for America's
public land policy.